Robert Kaplan, Canada’s solicitor general from 1980 to 1984, died Nov. 5 of cancer. He was 75.
Kaplan brought in Canada’s Young Offenders Act (the precursor of today’s juvenile justice system), created the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and was responsible for Canada’s role in the prosecution of war criminals.
A native of Toronto who graduated from Forest Hill Collegiate Institute and the University of Toronto, Kaplan was a lawyer who became Canada’s youngest MP in 1968, representing the Don Valley riding at age 32.
A devoted Liberal, he was re-elected in 1972 and in five succeeding consecutive elections, representing York Centre until his retirement from politics in 1993.
Kaplan was inspired to enter politics by Pierre Trudeau, who, as a University of Montreal professor before he became Canada’s prime minister, led a research trip to the newly independent Republic of Ghana. Kaplan participated in the trip on a scholarship.
As a university student, Kaplan served as a guide at the Canadian Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Brussels in 1956, an experience related to his love of international affairs and of languages – he eventually spoke seven.
Rabbi Elie Karfunkel, who officiated at Kaplan’s standing-room-only funeral Nov. 6 at Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel, remembers him as “a brilliant man” who was genuinely modest, despite numerous honours and awards, and as someone who focused on getting things done.
The rabbi got to know Kaplan through Kaplan’s son John’s involvement in his synagogue, the Temmy Latner Forest Hill Jewish Centre (FHJC).
“Bob Kaplan was intimately involved in everything his kids care about,” he said. Rabbi Karfunkel said that Kaplan became a father figure to him as well, and that he used to ask him for advice.
At the shul’s groundbreaking last year, Robert Kaplan spoke of the antisemitism he experienced as a child and his pride in his uncles who were soldiers during the war.
Kaplan’s daughter Jennifer Chown said in a eulogy that her father loved Canada more than anyone she ever met. “He submitted all of himself to changing her for the better… He always believed in the wealth provided by other cultures and peoples.”
Although Kaplan was not religious, he “was so proud of being Jewish,” Chown told The CJN.
Among the causes he was involved in, Kaplan was an advocate for Soviet Jewry. In his early days as an MP, he and his wife Estherelke visited the Soviet Union to try to convince the Soviets to allow Jews to come to Canada at the Jewish community’s expense, Chown said.
Pursuing Nazi war criminals was also a passion of his, she said.
Political analyst and television personality Stephen LeDrew, who spent three years as Kaplan’s chief of staff when Kaplan was solicitor general, said Kaplan was disheartened by then-justice minister Jean Chrétien’s unwillingness to pursue the matter.
However, LeDrew said, he recalls Kaplan saying, “If Canada’s not going to do anything, I know Germany has a law on the books. We’ll extradite them.”
Kaplan “made a big difference,” LeDrew said, adding that the then-solicitor general also organized the first conference for victims of crime.
“I was very privileged to be able to work with Bob… a very intelligent, decent, hard-working, wonderful, generous man. Irwin Cotler, MP for Mount Royal, told The CJN that Kaplan was “a very decent guy, personable, friendly, accessible, easy to work with, and I think that’s why he was able to get things done that somebody else might not have succeeded at.”
He added that the establishment of CSIS took “a lot of guts” on Kaplan’s part.
After his retirement from politics, Kaplan became involved in international business, most notably as a founder of PetroKazakhstan Inc.
Kaplan leaves his children Jennifer Mia Chown, John David, and Raquel Katherine Shulman, as well as 12 grandchildren, and his brother Michael. He was predeceased by his wife of 47 years, Estherelke, in 2009.